We've seen Parks described in major publications as both an oddball and a genius. He has said that his motivation is not fame or fortune, but the honor of music. These days, he's more relevant than ever, still pushing to see what a song can do. His latest project is a series of 7" singles with artwork commissioned to accompany each song printed on the sleeve. To hear it, you'll need a record player and an open mind.
U2 - Rattle and Hum
Silverchair - Diorama, Young Modern
Rufus Wainwright - Want, Want Too
Ry Cooder - Ry Cooder
Carly Simon - Another Passenger
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Sesame Street - Follow That Bird
T-Bone Burnett - Talking Animals
Stan Ridgway - Mosquitos
Divinyls - Divinyls
Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah
Fiona Apple - Tidal
Songfacts: Well, you certainly lived up to your definition as an artist.
Parks: (laughing) That's very, very generous of you. As I look back on my deeds, many of which seem absolutely indelible given the fact that they migrated from analog to digital, from royalties to no royalties in this age of piracy - it amazes me how durable these works have been. And yet it also gives me feelings of unease because I look back on some of these things, and the first thing that occurs to me is whatever was I thinking? And of course I would like to retract some of my statements and start all over, and be somebody who's epic, to be a muralist rather than a miniaturist. But so be it. I still think my best work is ahead of me. I proceed every day with that mantra. And I'm content at this age - I'm 68 - I'm content with my effort just knowing that I've done my best and will continue to.
Songfacts: A lot of us that are music fans and listeners don't really understand what an arranger does, how an arranger looks at music. Do you hear a finished product in your mind when you hear somebody's song?
Parks: No. When I hear somebody's song, if I've been asked to arrange, I hear an unfinished product. I hear an unfinished product that, if I take on the job, it's because I've decided that it needs to be defended, and I do everything I can to defend that work. That takes a decision, whether or not to be heard or simply to be felt in the arranging. I try to frame the work. And the reason that I do that is to give it greater power of enunciation so that it will be noticed. So, to me, it would be fair to say that I try to frame the work and not, with the first order of business being invasive surgery. I try to stay out of the way. If I hear a note that is incorrect, for example, I have to make a decision about whether to hide that note, support it in its invalidity, somehow to try to validate decisions that seem at first blush poor decisions. Now, that might be in a vocal, it might be in the instrumental, in the construct of the piece itself. But what I'm trying to do is preserve the mathematics of the piece. All of which, we're talking about music here, Zappa once said, like dancing about architecture. But what I try to do is give the piece power. If I feel that it has something at the core that speaks to me in a humanistic way. If the song conveys a matter of heart that is worth defending, I'll pursue it with all my heart. I spend about a week on average, promising, no less, an arrangement, so that I can re-think myself. Every morning I wake up and look at the labor of the day before. I'm talking about all day and into the night. And I look at the labor before, and often I will just simply toss out, perhaps, 3 or 4 hours of work if I don't feel it's up to snuff.
But I think that arranging is basically a job of doing what's there and bringing proportion to it, too, to making what's there heard. So I start my process by listening. I'm all ears. I pay more attention to what is already there than I think anybody that I know of in the arranging field. I do that because I don't think that the essential job of arranging is what we should call a creative process. Arranging is a reactive process. And I don't think that that means it's any less demanding. It takes a lot to respond, to just do nothing and listen and see what's there, and then support it. So naturally, I write down every note that I hear, even if it's just simply guitar, vocal, done on a garage group laptop. I do what's there. And then I decide how I want to illustrate that song.
This is the orchestra Parks used on the Inara George album An Invitation.
Songfacts: So that's kind of your comfort zone, then?
Parks: Well, that's the tool I know how to use well.
Songfacts: It feels comfortable in your hands.
Parks: Yeah. But at the same time, just as I enjoy immensely going and doing an orchestral - if I find a famous rock and roll group with deep pockets who can, without great personal sacrifice, hire a full orchestra, I'd be delighted to go to Prague or London or here in Hollywood and spend a lot of money on the third trombone. That's all very fine. But I try to keep an economical approach to recorded music so that artists end up making some money at the end of the day.
Songfacts: I've been curious as to why you found such a great working relationship with Brian Wilson. Is it your personalities that click, or are you on a similar wavelength that's caused you to be so good together?
Parks: I have no idea what wavelength Brian Wilson is on. When I worked with him and collaborated with him, that was 40 years ago.
Songfacts: But you worked with him on the Orange Crate project, correct?
Parks: Yes, I worked independent of him, if you notice in the record.
Parks: Yeah. I provided a record so that Brian - my main regard, knowing that that would be my last studio album at Warner Brothers in all probability, because they had a changing of the guard. They didn't want guys my age around people who might know what a contract would suggest. They wanted people that didn't know what contracts suggest. They got the young Turks in there then, and scraped off the residue of the Warner Brothers artists that had brought them so much public good will. But it was time for me to use that opportunity before I exited Warner Brothers to show Brian Wilson some gratitude for what he had done, his initial gesture, and bringing me into that Smile project. And I wanted to remind him that he had an absolute ability to go back into a studio and to be a functioning musician. And that's what Orange Crate Art did, his Rubicon, the river that he had to cross. And I did that, what I felt was turnabout of a mutual regard.
You see, I do believe you started talking about what I hear - when I get an arrangement, if I hear something. What I hear is "ka-ching." I hear the sound of the budget. I hear the quantitative demands. How much time can we spend in the studio with how many musicians and get this done? What is it going to take to lug this ball past the goal post? And it sounds quite unaesthetic or very ho-hum. But in fact, that's what it's all about. It's about the numbers of people that can engage. And that can be from a trio to quite a large number of musicians.
The job of arranging is the job of quantifying. It's a job of doing everything you can with just enough to do it. And it sounds very boring, doesn't it? (laughing)
Songfacts: When you say it, Van Dyke, it isn't.
Parks: But it takes a lot of struggling to do that, to get to that point, you know. Can we afford a harp? Well, yes. Can we afford the harp cartage? No. Dammit. You know, stuff like that happens in the course of arranging.
But I do believe, although I made a distinction between creative and reactive participation, I do believe that arranging is, I'm sorry to say, a dying part of our industry. And that is because of pirating and so forth. People are spending less and less money, bean counters are looking more and more for self-contained monastic talent, that is people with a synthesizer in a little closet in their apartment who can deliver some goods, whether they are synthetic or a derivative of Bob Dylan's early solo works. They want to save money. They don't want arrangers around to complicate their picture of profit.
But arranging has been a beautiful aspect of recording for so long, I believe a lot of people come to me because they can't find anybody else. This is what I do when I'm not insisting on myself. This day, actually, is of exception, because for the next couple of weeks I'm going to finish a series of six summer singles. That means 12 different compositions. Each of them arranged with musicians, each of them packaged by artists of great renown. Each of them a 45 rpm hi-fi stereo virgin vinyl single. Each of them something you can hold, you can smell, you can see, you can possess. Each of them, of course, is available on a digital download, too, for those that are stuck in that digital ditch. But they sound better, they look better, they are who I am, a retro character, still alive, having been pushed forward by the acceptance of another generation who know that I do put my heart in my work, I do think that arranging has a highly contributive job in the way a song will sound to the casual observer.
But for anyone who's really interested in what I'm doing and that work I bragged about, that is my best work, the work that lays ahead, this day, for example. It's a name for a shop my wife had in Paris.
I waited long enough. I waited about 15 years to get an offer from a record company. But record companies aren't so interested in veterans. Record companies are more interested in brunettes. And I suffered that disregard 15 years waiting to get a return call, and I finally decided to put out my own records. It reminds me of a joke my agent told me. He said there are four ages to an artist. I said what are they? He said, "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" "Get me Van Dyke Parks." "Get me a young Van Dyke Parks." "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" I think he hit it on the head right there.
But I have never written music to fish for flattery or condemnation. I don't pay attention to what people think of me. I pay attention to the old fella I see in the mirror in the morning who looks like my dad on a bad day.
July 29, 2011
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